The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, It Will Be On The Internet

I walk past the Occupy Belfast protesters opposite St. Anne’s Cathedral nearly every day. It would be easy to sneer at them. They have some rather nice tents out of Decathlon, that well known bastion of anti-capitalism, and they seem to have a lot of fun. Not only are they not occupying anything more than Belfast’s new-but-now-traditional venue of left-wing protest, but they aren’t even properly persecuted. I can’t remember the last time I saw a cop there, let alone a raid. All the same, they’ve held out through a winter that has had its cold and wild spots between the mildness, and what’s wrong with a bit of fun anyway? Being young, and free, and thinking you’re about to change the world, it’s a lovely experience – perhaps we sneer at them because we’re jealous of them?

Are they changing the world? Probably not. They aren’t in the right place or the right time, but they are part of something that is. @OccupyBelfast – “We are the 99%”, as it styles itself on Twitter, babbles away via social media with Occupy Birmingham, and Occupy Bratislava, and Occupy Boston. Information surges into Lower Donegall Street through the capillaries of the internet from places where the students on the streets really are changing the world – from Cairo, and Hama, and Moscow. As I said, Northern Ireland in 2012 is not the right place or time to be in the centre of things. There are just too many other things in recent history to deal with here at this juncture. But if a wave spreads, you never know, you just never know.

And that’s the problem with talking about the likely impact of social media on the affairs of the world – we simply don’t know. Weak and inefficient Arab dictatorships were caught on the hop when the revolution started being spread by text message; but China’s security apparatus has been paranoid about the impact of mobile comms and the internet since before anyone else took them seriously. Just as the pen was often not mightier than the sword, Bahrain shows that the heavily armed Saudi urban pacification squad is mightier than the Nokia wielding teenager. Syria might well end up sending the same message.

It’s difficult for a non-Sinophone to get a decent handle on what’s happening on the internet in China, and not only because of language difficulties. The Great Firewall combined with China’s sheer size means that one fifth of humanity surfs through a virtual world only weakly connected with that inhabited by the other four fifths. Chinese surf for video clips on Youku and Tudou, not YouTube, while Weibo and Taobao are used instead of Twitter and eBay. Chinese exceptionalism is as powerful as that exhibited by any country on the planet, and it begins the moment you open your web browser.

In the 1930s, the talking cinema and the radio were the two powerful means of spreading information most recently to emerge on the scene. One transmitted simple information around the world instantaneously, so that a war that broke out in Asia made the living rooms and ministries of Washington and Berlin within minutes. The other transmitted the creations of the world’s leading directors and actors around the world in a matter of weeks or months, transmitting ideas more powerfully and faithfully than any stage piece or silent movie ever could.

While liberal democrats, especially on the left, had their great moments in the golden age of radio on cinema, from Casablanca to How Green is my Valley? to FDR’s fireside chats, Nazism and Communism were enthusiastic and skilled proponents of the new media of the day. Faced with information coming through normal channels, people can become very effective at sorting out propaganda from reality. When receiving information from unfamiliar sources, it takes time to learn to spot the subtle clues that alert one to the bogus. The broadcast of Hitler’s speeches on the radio was a major media event, and Leni Riefenstahl burnished the Nazis’ image while Fritz Hippler demonised their enemies. Stalin, too, was an early and enthusiastic supporter of cinema and its power to shape minds.

Just a few short decades later, radio was past its sell-by date as a vehicle for more than broadcasting pop songs, while the efforts of eastern Bloc cinema and television to sell the virtues of ‘really existing socialism’ seemed cheap and tawdry. By that stage, people had a better sense of when someone was telling the truth and when people were just making stuff up. It wasn’t that propaganda had died, still less than people had stopped believing it, but by that stage, it took time, money and talent to create believable propaganda. The first two were in perpetually short supply in the Communist world and the last wasn’t always available to the state. In the West, where all three resources were available in abundance, quality propaganda survived, but with limits. Not many even among its most die-hard fans saw Delta Force as a meaningful contribution to the debate on US Middle East policy. On the other hand, the relentless, decades long, campaign to normalise homosexuality through British television worked a treat. I’m one of its beneficiaries, and I’m delighted that people invested their time and skills to make it happen.

Most of us have been using social media for less than five years. Few of us understand exactly how any particular concatenation of stories arrives on our Facebook home page. Many of our online contacts are with people we’ve never met in real life; our capacity to judge their reliability as witnesses is limited. We are potentially suckers for the next great propagandist to come along. And I’m not sure we can do anything about that at this point in time.

Gil Scott-Heron’s poem identified the top-down nature of the last great information technology, television, as its critical weakness in promoting social change. Hierarchical, unidirectional, dependent on corporate or government sponsorship, it was not the vector for revolutions. Those watching TV would miss the revolution, which could only happen on the streets.

Today’s great information technology goes out onto the streets with us on our smartphones. It does not only convey information from top to bottom, but also from bottom to top and side to side. It continues to convey information, however, from top to bottom. A lot of information. In the internet age, those at the apex of politics, business or civil society still have enormously more leverage to convey information to the world at large than the average person. Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign is living proof of that, and his 2012 campaign might still underscore it.

The internet can still be used for top-down purposes, and some time soon somebody is going to use that to maximum effect, for good or ill. We lose sight of that at our peril.

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  • pauluk

    It is well for some people who have nothing to do and all day to do it! It must be great not to have any responsibilities and not to have to contribute anything to society. At least they are getting some fresh air and not just being couch potatoes. Seems such a waste, but hey, live and let live, I suppose.

  • Catherine Couvert

    Cheap, Pauluk! Everybody who’s read the papers properly for the last few months knows that Occupy is made up of diverse people, many of whom go to their workplace / university / home to take care of relatives regularly. And if many are young and free and able to dream about changing the world, hey to that! So were we once, and like Gerry I think there is a bit of envy in many of us. And by what criteria do we judge who has nothing to contribute to society? Slippery ground.
    The main point of the article, thought, is what I am most interested in, and one that has started me thinking. How much do media and propaganda drive wars, dictatorships, revolutions and social movements and how much is it the other way round, that social and economic forces dictate the cultural landscape of a time? Are we attributing too much power (liberating or oppressive) to social media and the internet because they are new or are we right to take them so seriously?
    I certainly don’t feel qualified to answer my question but would be interested in what others have to say.

  • Mick Fealty

    Gerry,

    I think the gap between the power of the instrument and the wider understanding of just how powerful it is getting wider (if our friend PaulUK is anything to judge by). You hit the nail firmly on the head when you point out we take our smart phones with us. Libya has crap Internet penetration, but 60% in mobile phones, a good proportion of which are smart.

    It is no longer about egotistical bloggers on their digital soapboxes. The net provides the means for creating networks of belonging. Networks you can continually opt into and out of. It contains within it the means of getting out from under the role of passive receiver.

    It’s been the case for a very long time that the power of traditional channels have been both over and under stated. Murdoch’s vicarious claim that ‘it was the Sun wot won it’ obscures the previous monopoly big media had in sampling public opinion. Look at the confused hand over from Labour to the Tories in 2010. His journos are no longer listening solely to their readers but to the complex informational matrix that is Twitter, which changes minute by minute.

    As a sidebar, here’s John Pollock on how the net was used in Libya:
    http://events.tvworldwide.com/Events/IOM/IOM111208.aspx?VID=events/IOM/111208_NAS_IOM_Day1_1600_Pollock.flv

    In short, it is little short of idiotic to suggest that Gil Scott Heron was short of the mark. The revolution will not only not be televised, you will not be able to passively ‘consume’ it on the internet either.

  • I did some research last year on how revolutionary youth movements and international solidarity networks used social media both as tools and as emerging public space. You can find it here
    http://www.scribd.com/doc/71262336/Tweeting-History-An-Enquiry-Into-Aspects-Of-Social-Media-in-the-Egyptian-Revolution

  • Mick Fealty

    I think you should break off chunks of that report SM, and guide us through some highlights.

    I particularly like your graphs on the Egyptian Government’s big switch off. But I think the most acute observation on that I’ve heard is that the suddenness of the switch off is what pressed people out on to the streets to take action.

    It triggered a physical reaction which was the final deconstruction in the generally assumed consensus that Mubarak’s government was okay with the neighbours Egyptians had previously been too scared to speak with about politics.

    Here are some thoughts I’d had on this earlier: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/apr/30/thephantomofdemocracy

  • unicorn

    On the other hand, the relentless, decades long, campaign to normalise homosexuality through British television worked a treat.

    It may be a good thing that many gay people are not bullied as much as before but when you don’t leave things to a tolerant and open debate you thereby victimise others in a way that eventually can become unacceptable, and partially abandons the Enlightenment project for gaining objective knowledge, which can lead to unwise future decisions. This is perhaps more clearly seen on the subject of racism where it is more extreme.

    Can a gay man become straight? Can a straight teenage boy be “recruited”? Are all racial groups on average equal in those genetic propensities that can affect behaviour? These are scientific questions, not moral ones. The evidence is not conclusive and many scientists avoid addressing these questions for fear of the personal consequences for their career. If you want a job in the BBC you must pretend that you know the answers, even pretend that the scientists have used the scientific method to settle the argument. Lysenkoism reborn.

    Then the consequences. Charles Darwin with his “favoured races” and “talkative negros” becomes a racist, to be classed alongside Hitler. Alfred Kinsey with his continuums and flip flopping gays becomes a homophobe. Then they get a pardon because they were from a different time and couldn’t be expected to be as clever and knowledgeable as we are, even if our “knowledge” has nothing to do with evidence. No, watching Eastenders isn’t evidence.

    Then we get the treatment of James Watson or Iris Robinson. They don’t get a pardon because they were born too late, in more “progressive” times. They are to be sacrificial lambs so that gay teenage boys don’t get bullied in playgrounds and West Indian women don’t get dog shit shoved in their letter boxes. Sure what have the Enlightenment and scientific method ever done for us but produced gas chambers and atomic bombs? How can our fellow men be trusted with such a thing, some of them are chavs? Much better to go back to superstition and heresy trials, but this time have the right superstitions and the right definition of who’s a heretic. Luis Suarez? Jade Goody? Stack the wood on the pyre my friends and enjoy the self righteous fury, just like you enjoyed poking frogs with sticks and pulling the legs off flies when you were a child. We’re the good guys right?

    Is it all worth it? Even asking the question admits that one side is, at least in one sense, in the wrong.

    Doesn’t it rather detract from teaching people that the right of a man to stick his penis up another man’s anus with consent and in private is the harm principle, just the same as if he gets a spanking with consent and in private? Doesn’t it detract from the principle that judging a job applicant by their race is wrong in the same way as judging them by who their brother is and what they’ve done? Yet we had New Labour giving us gay civil partnerships along with woolly laws criminalising pictures made by consenting adults. We have laws against racism but not nepotism. Whose agenda is this? Why do they get to pick and choose?

  • Mick Fealty

    Interesting perspective. But can we sidebar that slightly since it was an illustrative point rather than the thrust of Gerry’s argument; which is about the competing claims to radicalism from two very different media forms.

    As I understand it, Gerry is pointing out that building a channel large enough can release to local from purely parochial custom and diffuse liberal values more broadly (that’s not to discount the possibility you cite that the defence of such values may in turn put us at odds with the kind of enlightenment values that are now driving the new technological revolution).

    Adriana Lukas had the base argument down pat at an RSA event we both spoke at a few years back:

    “The pre-internet age was the age of mass production that was based on the age of engineering. This was a time when complex problems called for complex solutions. To build a bridge is a feat of complexity. Computing and the internet have brought about another type of complexity, which is based on the realisation that a few simple rules can lead to complexity. For example, the internet is a “stupid network” with one simple rule – move packets from one end to another and then some. What we see today was built on one of the simplest architectures around, but with inbuilt flexibility and rules to allow complexity. The same applies to the social aspects of the web.”

    More here: http://www.sluggerconsults.com/rewiring-our-nervous-system/

  • unicorn

    Apologies if I’ve gone down a side alley but I think when you examine it it’s less of a side alley than it first appears.

    Many of the Occupy protesters wear Guy Fawkes masks to symbolise their belonging to Anonymous which ultimately stems from 4chan.org. 4chan is notorious for computer hacking and supporting free information in both senses of the word whether mpegs of Hollywood movies or Scientology texts. So far so much makes sense. But 4chan is also notorious for racism, homophobia, paedophilia apologism, gory images, holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. When I say that I don’t just mean that they happen to occur, they are motifs, defining elements of the Anonymous culture. Not always taken entirely seriously admittedly.

    So why is Anonymous full of such bizarre and repulsive things? Precisely because you won’t switch on Eastenders (or the American equivalent) and see that stuff. It is a reaction against the taboos of the people with power in the media and academia and what they have decided the public should not see or know about.

    Just as the internet drives people to want to see and spread Scientology’s legally restricted space opera stories for themselves it makes them want to see claims that the allies invented a myth that clothes fumigation chambers were designed for mass execution. Both may be rubbish factually, but the internet is effectively cutting out the capacity to censor ideas. It is taking away the capacity of Eastenders script writers to “campaign to normalise homosexuality” like they once did just as printing presses took away power from popes.

    This is the way in which the internet will change politics. No longer will someone “win” an argument by shaming their opponents into not putting up a case, because how can you shame someone who is anonymous and has no permanent reputation? You can only address their actual argument. Which actually is how it should be.

    On the internet you can spout off like James Watson or Iris Robinson about Africa’s GDP having to do with genes or gay people being “cured”, and you can do so anonymously with no repercussions. That empowers the marketplace of ideas in a similar way that the printing press did. People fear it, from different perspectives. Without the internet we’d have no Occupy movement. Without the internet we’d have no EDL. Without the internet we’d have no Anders Breivik with his Ctrl C / Ctrl V manifesto.

    With the internet we now have the freedom for people to take forbidden ideas and test them to destruction. In individual cases this may lead to tragedy, as in the case of Breivik. The same can be said for the printing press. It had it’s tragedies too. Arguably the entire Communist experiment was one of them, started by a bearded academic in the British Library and his pen.

    But who will ultimately benefit and who lose politically? Both the right and the left will gain some and lose some. I think that’s a given. The better answer is that elitists will lose and populists will gain. Those who view people as sheep to be led and influenced will lose and those who view them as equals who can make up their own minds will gain. That was how the printing press panned out and I think we’ll see it again. Arab dictators with their controlled TV stations are obviously in line for a net loss. They are elitists who treat people as livestock. And so they have lost, with Anonymous people in Idaho and Warsaw DDoSing their websites, donating communication channels and cheering their loss when their people take to the streets.

    If your politics are based on ideas that cannot win in a debate with an anonymous person with no shame or thought for reputation, but instead must rely on getting the right people into the BBC to incorporate your agenda into Eastenders and the Archers then the internet will be a nightmare for you. That kind of sounds more like the left than the right to me who will suffer most, but perhaps I’m biased.

    So where do Occupy fit in? I’m not sure what ideas they could be challenging or creating. It’s all a bit

    What do we want?
    We’re not going to tell you.
    When do we want it?
    Now!!

    and I suspect it’s something of a red herring in terms of how the internet will shape politics. I could be wrong. Maybe I just don’t get it. It seems to me that if we want the 1% to pay more tax to give to the 99% then the best place to effect that was, is and will be at the ballot box. I see no media blackout being challenged. The Sunday Times Rich List has been published for decades. We all knew before how unequal society is.

  • Greenflag

    ‘Maybe I just don’t get it.’

    I’d add YET to your comment above .

    As to where Occupy fit in ? The rough answer is we don’t know yet and that goes for Belfast as much as the USA or UK or Dame St . It’s a bit like trying to define an elephant without seeing one but you will know what an elephant is when it stomps across your garden wall.

    ‘We all knew before how unequal society is.’

    Indeed and it was even more unequal decades ago and certainty a century or two or 500 or a thousand years ago. But that ‘issue ‘ is not the kern issue behind ‘Occupy’ . The ‘real ‘issue which is probably why those who founded the movement are NOT rushing to be embraced by any of the main established political parties is because many people at least a large section of the 99% realise and understand that the main political parties be they the GOP or DEMS in the the USA or the Tories or Labour in the UK or FF or FG or Lab./SF/DUP/UUP in Ireland have ALL lost the confidence of electorates . This is seen from declining voter participation to polls which show a 12% approval rating for the US Congress .

    This world wide economic crisis IS NOT BEING RESOLVED by the parties which should be resolving it .There are many reasons for this among which can be listed the traditional competing ‘national ‘interests ‘ ,ideologies , spheres of interest , currency turmoil , and huge sums of ‘derivatives ‘ leveraged out to some 600 trillion plus dollars (call it gambling ) now foisted on the world economy and we still await the financial consequences when some of that hits the ground .

    Financial ‘capitalism ‘ has failed and is continuing to fail .Whether it will drag down ‘Authoritarian Capitalism ‘ (China ) with it is yet to seen .And in the midst of the USA ‘debacle -there is still the Euro zone which continues to teeter on the edge of the abyss .And the UK is no safe haven and in fact is in worst shape than any other major trading nation.

    Occupy’s ‘incoherence’ stems from the very complexity of the Wall St/City of London /IMF/ECB machinations over the previous two decades which have delivered this mess over the heads of the elected ‘bought ‘politicians most of whom had no conception or idea of what was being unleashed on the world .

    And now the politicians from Obama to Cameron to Sarkoczy and Merkel are being dragged by ‘events ‘ to adopt positions which they never ‘planned ‘for .

    A world financial meltdown in 2012 is not beyond possibility .

    WWI began in Aug 1914 not because any of the major powers of the time wanted war but because ‘events ‘ which seemed individually in the scheme of things unimportant were allowed to get out of control and then the spiral downward to ‘war ‘ became unstoppable .In 2012 it seems as if our elected chief lemmings are still heading for the edge of the economic abyss .